The Boston Phoenix November 9 - 16, 2000


Living Will


by Chris Wright

Will Self and drugs go back a long way -- "all the way to the cradle," he says, laughing. He was raised in an "effortlessly dull" North London suburb by parents he has described as being "at loggerheads" and "intellectually snobbish." His mother, who died of cancer in 1988, was a displaced Jewish-American. His father, who died last year, was a professor at the London School of Economics. They divorced when Self was 18.

By his own account, Self was a smart kid, albeit one who spent a lot of time wandering his own imagination. Though his parents encouraged his intellectual development, they were not what you'd call affectionate. In order to cadge some attention, perhaps, Will started acting up at an early age. "I was a very emotionally confused, uncommunicative, and self-destructive child," he says. "Even before I got into drugs I was self-harming with knives and cigarette ends, burning myself. So in some way drugs were a relief from all that. That's why I connected with them."

By the time he was nine, Self was pilfering his parents' booze. At 13 he was a pothead. By 15 he was on speed. As the boy grew older and his tastes turned to more exotic contraband, his parents seemed ill-equipped to help him. "My mother once bought me a book, Cocaine: A Drug and Its Social Evolution," Self recalls. "My father was incapable of enacting any discipline on me at all. I remember him finding eight grams of cocaine in my drawer -- I would have been about 17 -- and he said, `I really, really think you ought not to be using cocaine.' "

He adds, "They were liberal parents."

By the time he turned 17, Self was heavily into cocaine and heroin. Nonetheless, he managed to win a place at Oxford University, where he studied political philosophy, worked for an anarchist newspaper called the Red Herring, and performed in a band called, appropriately enough, the Abusers.

"I was quite active politically," Self recalls. "There was much debate into the late hours over whether the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] were Trots and all that. It was an odd time. I had a schizophrenia about being an anarchist and being at Oxford. That confused me. On the other hand, I was as willing to partake in the elitist credentials as everybody else. I never went to the lectures or anything like that. I was quite uninvolved except for politics and drugs."

By his early 20s, Self had turned his attention from politics to literature. He became "obsessed" with the idea of writing a book. "I didn't go around going `I'm gonna be a writer,' partly out of a kind of magical thinking," he says. "It was such an intense ambition that I thought to actually tell people about it would queer the pitch. So I didn't harp on it."

Then again, he really didn't have that much to harp about. By that time, Self was so steeped in illegal substances that he could hardly think straight, let alone sit down and compose a work of fiction. Even more crippling to his ambitions, though, were the personal issues that had led him to drugs in the first place. "The superstructure [of the addiction] was bound up with nonconformism, revolution, anarchy," he says. "The underlying emotional base was self-destructive, trying to alleviate the depression, low self-esteem, a sense of worthlessness."

It was these feelings, Self says, that "hamstrung" him as a writer in those early years: "Right through my 20s I had that awful feeling that I very much wanted to express myself but that everything I wrote was rubbish and it had all been written before. So I sort of tended my flame quite closely in that way."

After graduating from Oxford's Exeter College in 1982, Self "bummed around" for a few years, working as a builder's mate and in other dead-end jobs. He did some technical writing, including a stint for a Safeway supermarket in-house magazine. The first job that allowed Self to flex his creative muscle was as a cartoonist for the New Statesman. The strip was called Slump, and it featured, Self explains, "a man who goes to bed and refuses to get up again." The Statesman is famed for having nurtured the literary talents of people like Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis. But it would be years before Self could even dream of entering these rarefied literary circles. As he says now, "Cartoons required far less intellectual energy than writing a book."

In the mid '80s, though, Self started to turn things around, checking himself into rehab and going relatively straight. Almost immediately, his writing talents blossomed. "It just started coming to me," he says. "The voice just suddenly came." The result of Self's belated creative burst was his 1991 masterpiece The Quantity Theory of Insanity, a collection of characteristically quirky short stories that immediately marked him as one of the most important writers of his generation.

Over the next five or six years, Self fitted his drug habit into a writer's routine. He would spend months getting out of his head, then clean himself up long enough to work on a book, cloistering himself away in country inns. The book finished, he would go on another bender until it was time to write again. It seemed to be working. In 1997, Self published his Swiftian satire Great Apes to great critical acclaim. As the New York Times Book Review put it, Great Apes established Self as the "alpha male in the British literary hierarchy."

Today, though, Self admits that he's somewhat disappointed with Great Apes. It could have been -- should have been -- a much tighter book, he says. In the two years after its publication, Self's insistence that heroin was, for him, a "working drug" began to look more and more like a typical case of junkie justification, smack-headed self-deception. By last year, Self's descent into narcosis had left him stricken with a nasty case of creative jitters.

"I could feel my wellspring drying up," he says. "It wasn't that I couldn't construct a sentence. I could still do that. But what happens for most addictive writers, we have astonishing creative bursts up until the illness really begins to grip. That's the point where you begin to produce parodies of what you've done before."

For years, Self had suffered with junkie fortitude the indignities and infirmities that his addiction heaped upon him. The collapse of his literary talent, though, he couldn't stomach. "I cleaned up in large part because at that point I simply realized I couldn't finish the book I was working on," he says. "I couldn't say the things I wanted to say while enacting the hypocrisy of my own addiction."

That book, How the Dead Live, did get finished, albeit a year after deadline. The relief Self felt at its completion, however, had little to do with anxious telephone messages from his editor. "I don't think I'd take this from anybody else," he says, "but I have to be honest about it -- with myself -- the book involved an astonishing level of catharsis."

Will Self's public persona might have softened, but if How the Dead Live is anything to go by, his fiction hasn't. The book is written in the voice of Lily Bloom, a 65-year-old Jewish-American living in London. Or dying in London. Stricken with terminal cancer, Lily spends much of the story lying flat on her back, spitting in the face of death.

It's hard to muster much sympathy for the woman at first. Lily is a vehicle for Self's investigation into the grim paradox of Jewish anti-Semitism, and she's not a pretty picture. Her rambling internal monologue sputters bigotry at every turn. But it's not just Jews who feel the sting of Lily's disdain. "So many people left to disparage," she says, "so little time." Full marks to her for trying, though: Slobodan Milosevic is a "fat fuck," the pope a "dimwit Polack," Bill Clinton "spunk drunk," Michael Jackson a "whited-up shvartzer."

As in all of Self's work, the desolation in How the Dead Live is laced with dark comedy. Lily's riffs on everything from English reserve to international politics are often groan-out-loud funny. On the modern penchant for overdesigned automobiles, she sniffs, "Even police cars are fashion statements. Calling all queers -- there's an all points style bulletin." Still, after a hundred or so pages of this the reader could be forgiven for wishing the old bag would hurry up and die already. Then she does. This is where the book starts to get really interesting.

No one does the implausible as plausibly as Self. He sets out his absurd, topsy-turvy worlds in a hyper-realistic style, imposing a strict internal logic on the freakish proceedings. In his last novel, Great Apes, he created a world in which chimpanzees are on top of the evolutionary heap. In How the Dead Live, he sets up an afterlife -- based loosely on the Tibetan Book of the Dead -- which makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time.

"There are two ways of proposing something preposterous to the reader," Self explains. "One is to say, `One morning Gregor Samsa awoke to discover that during the night he'd turned into an enormous cockroach -- take it or leave it.' The other is my approach. In Great Apes, I knew that the average reader is not going to be able to buy the idea that chimpanzees talk. They've read enough to know that a chimpanzee larynx can only produce 18 as opposed to 53 distinct phonemes -- and how can you get English language out of that? So I had my chimps signing to each other. You have to have a sense of what the reader will buy."

In How the Dead Live, Self goes to great pains to create a quasi-realistic depiction of Lily's afterlife -- which she spends in a crusty little basement apartment in a North London suburb called Dulston. She attends "Personally Dead" self-help meetings, frequents greasy spoons serving "Full Dead" breakfasts, and works a low-level job for a crappy PR firm. "Now I'd have to go through the whole business of acclimatizing myself," she says at the outset of her death. "Getting the utilities sorted out, finding out where the local Sainsbury's was, applying for a library card -- all that crap."

As might be expected in a Buddhist allegory, everything that happens to Lily after death is a result of her conduct in life. Her preternatural baggage is telling: there's Lithy, a little ossified fetus that skips around her ankles singing '70s ditties -- he is the spirit of Lily's stillborn child; there's the foul-mouthed racist Rude Boy, Lily's son who died in a road accident; and there are the Fats, a trio of blubbery ghouls who wobble around Lily's apartment chanting "Fat and old, fat and old" and who represent the weight Lily lost and gained during her lifetime.

In life, Lily was sex-mad, a chronic overeater -- addicted to earthly pleasures. Presented with the opportunity to find eternal bliss, Lily opts instead for a chocolate bar and a good rogering. Enter Phar Lap Jones, an aboriginal Australian "Death Guide." Phar Lap is a cliché on legs, the sort of Traditional Person every godless Westerner imagines to be the epitome of spiritual savvy. "Yairs, nothing here fer you, Lily-girl. Thass true enough," Phar Lap says. "All this gammin, see -- it's 'cos yer dead but won't accept it, yeh-hey?" The voice of otherworldly wisdom, it appears, is often indecipherable. This elaborate, super-subtle, drawn-out joke is classic Self.

In all his work, Self says, he tries to balance "wised-up, exploded metaphoric humor, this bent for absurdism, and a fairly rigorous, intellectually tight level of argument." At the heart of How the Dead Live is a critique of materialism. You cannot turn a page without being confronted by some form of materialistic excess: sexual fixation, eating disorders, drug addiction, financial greed, intellectual snobbery, and obsessive self-reflection.

"The book's about people who are addicted to a conception of themselves as the thinking `I,' " Self says, "who have no notion of their quiddity, of who they are beyond reflective self-consciousness. I wanted to write a book about the way death is treated in our culture. Death as we understand it in our Occidental culture is the big nowhere. I was particularly inspired by my own mother's death, because I'd been there and seen the fear, the terror she died in."

Much critical speculation has been cast as to how much Lily Bloom resembles Self's mother. The biographical similarities are unmistakable: Like Lily, Self's mother was a Jewish-American woman living in London; like Lily, she succumbed to cancer in 1988 while in her 60s. In interviews, Self has been cagey about how far these parallels go. Lily's voice, he says, was inspired partly by a journal of his mother's he discovered after her death, in which she wrote candidly -- and often bitterly -- about her family life. Self has also acknowledged that his mother was "ambivalent" about her Jewishness. But he has so far stopped short of saying that the character of Lily Bloom is based on his mother. And you can't blame him; Lily is, after all, a royal bitch.

"Well, you know, this is very tricky," he says. "Because it kind of is her." He lets out a nervous laugh. "But of course, [my mother] was so much worse." He laughs again. "Just talking to you, I have a fear that people who read your piece might think, `Whoa! He's dissing his mother, that's awful, he should speak respectfully of her, look how negative the character is.' What I ask people to understand is that there's this enormous amount of sympathy for the woman in this book. She's a suffering soul."

It's funny to watch Self defend himself in this "Offensive? Moi?" kind of way. His work is invariably -- and gleefully -- peopled with unspeakably rotten people. Indeed, compared to the character who has sexual congress with the neck of a recently decapitated tramp, Lily Bloom is an angel. Self has never shied away from offending people, and he has often succeeded. Again and again, critics have slammed Self's penchant for using sexual, violent, and scatological imagery -- often concomitantly. I put this criticism to Self, expecting a diatribe against hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. Instead I get "Hmmm, hmmm," followed by a period of silence.

"I think there's a great deal of validity to the idea that traditional literary language doesn't treat the human condition in quite the way I've always experienced it," Self finally says. "I think that as an injecting heroin addict, my body became very much an idiot twin that I was dragging around with me. Perhaps other people don't have that. I should imagine that if you're always at ease with your body, if it's something that always obeys your wishes, then maybe you do find writing about piss and shit and ejaculation unpleasant."

Ironically, the other criticism often leveled at Self is that he's too self-consciously brainy, that he expends too much energy performing syntactic somersaults and pulling streamers of colorful, polysyllabic words out of his hat. Recently, back in the UK, Self was honored with something called the Too Clever By Half award.

These criticisms are both valid. Self can be -- and he hates to hear this -- a difficult writer to read. One minute he's got you leaning over the toilet bowl, the next he's got you hunting around for your unabridged dictionary. Combined, though, these apparent flaws are what give Self's work its spark. The clash of crude physicality with lofty intellectualism gives a dark, contemporary twist to that old philosophical chestnut, the Mind-Body Problem. More importantly, it's funny.

In How the Dead Live, however, Self explores new ground: the incompatibility of the physical and the spiritual. Does this mean that he, like so many recovering addicts, is casting an eye toward religion? "Oh, I'm off with the fucking fairies," he says. "Would you like to pray with me now?" He goes on to add that he's "certainly open to a spiritual dimension to life," but with little conviction. Speak with Self for long enough and it becomes clear that he comes closest to rapture through his writing. "It's very definitely a vocation," he says, "a calling."

In the end, whether How the Dead Live suggests that Self is dissing his mother, or finding religion, or gaining maturity is beside the point. The question is, is the book any good? It is. It may even be his best work yet. What's even more encouraging for admirers of Self's work is that it gets better as it goes along.

The book is organized into three sections: Dying, Dead, and Deader. The first section, Self reveals during our interview, was written while he was still using. The moment when Lily dies marks the point when Self finally kicked the habit. This seems a very Self-like conceit: to undergo a rebirth at the very point he kills off his character. To have life and fiction tumble over one another like that.

More to the point, How the Dead Live may serve as a sort of blueprint for the transition between the work of Self-the-junkie and that of Self-the-abstainer. The Dead and Deader sections -- the drug-free sections -- move more fluidly than the earlier part of the book. There's less linguistic virtuosity and more plot. There are even a few moments of something approaching genuine humanity. Perhaps the cleaned-up Will Self will write books about, um, nice things. He refuses to rule out the possibility.

Of course, the possibility also exists that sobriety may actually hurt Self's writing. Indeed, for many fans, the idea of Will Self quitting drugs is unthinkable -- like Tony the Tiger quitting Frosted Flakes. To be sure, one reason Self's work packs such a punch is that it offers an authentic portrayal of chronic addiction. Another is that it has always teetered on the edge of lunacy. In some sense, Self is a quintessentially druggy writer.

"Obviously, nobody could have written `A Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz' if they hadn't had a fucking huge crack habit," Self says, clearly not happy with the suggestion that his drug use and his work are codependent. In fact, he looks so glum at this moment that I regret ever having raised the topic.

"You know, I would have loved to have had a different life," he continues. "I would have loved to have applied my gifts to writing about nature, to writing positively and constructively about social situations, to writing about the spiritual bond between people. But I had no knowledge of that because I was locked in my bubble of narcosis. So no, I don't really hold with that. I own what I have done, I own my work, but I don't think that's what's me, necessarily. There are other possible worlds in which things might have been different."

Is there anything at all about the old Will he'll miss?

"Of course there were good times," he says. "I thrilled to the moment when I was in a hotel in England with a gang of people, sort of ripping up the room, and the floor waiter knocked on the door. I said to everyone, `Shut up! Get in the toilet. Put that joint out. Urgh! Urgh!' Then I went to the door and the waiter said, `Mr. Self, the manager just wanted me to tell you that anything you want to do is fine.' I thought that was it, I've arrived. And yet that appealed to the worst part of my nature, the grandiosity of the addiction. It was a part of myself, but an exaggerated part of myself, because I'm actually a private person, quite a gentle person."

A few moments later there's a knock on the door. It's a floor waiter, a different one, this time bearing a plate of cold-turkey sandwiches. Will Self tucks into his with the kind of appetite we've come to expect of him.

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Chris Wright can be reached at cwright[a]